All wool and a yard wide

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Wed Jan 7 02:01:42 UTC 2004

>A subscriber has suggested that the phrase "all wool and a yard
>wide", known from the 1880s and which is suspected to be an early
>advertising slogan, actually derives from a slogan of the J O Ballard
>woollen mill at Malone, New York. There certainly was a woollen
>factory in the town in 1855, but I lack the resources necessary to
>determine whether the story is a folk etymology, or whether the
>mill's publicists borrowed an already existing expression. Can anyone

"All wool and a yard wide" meaning genuine/excellent occurs as early as
1881 according to a quick database search.

The original reference would be to cloth, and I find many parallel
instances before and shortly after 1881.

For example, here's "muslin, yard wide, 10c." from 1878 ("Indiana Progress"
[Indiana PA], 7 Feb. 1878, p. 5[?]). [The price is usually by the yard of
length, I believe, so the width must be known in order to determine one's

And here's "an excellent Black Cashmere, all-wool, a yard wide, at 45c."
from 1883 ("Denton Journal" [Denton MD], 22 Sep. 1883, p. 1).

So I think originally the phrase would have been descriptive ... and
probably not clearly superlative, since some cloth came in 1.5-yard widths
etc., and since wool would not be the ideal cloth for all purposes. It
would not seem appropriate for a company's "slogan" until after it came to
mean "excellent/genuine".

I speculate that "all wool" was taken to mean "top quality" (referring to
cloth) and the "yard wide" was added humorously in imitation of
advertisements like the above.

Then there's the later development which I've heard more often myself: "all
woman and a yard wide".

-- Doug Wilson

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